Food Frontier chief executive Thomas King says growth in the category is being driven by a crop of startups rushing in to meet rising consumer demand.
“One third of Australians are actively limiting their meat consumption but a lot of those folks still want the convenience and familiarity of a burger on their barbecue or some mince for bolognaise,” he says. “They are doing it foremost for health reasons then secondary reasons are the environment, ethical and social norms.”
However, the health benefits of the products are debatable. Meat alternatives may be promoted as a healthy option but experts warn the products are highly processed and should at best be eaten occasionally.
A study by the George Institute for Global Health in Melbourne in 2019 with the Heart Foundation, which looked at processed meat alternatives such as meat-free bacon and meat-free sausages, found some products contained up to half a day’s worth of salt in one serve.
Dr Nick Fuller, an obesity expert from Sydney University, warns meat alternatives are also high in fats and sugar.
“A vegan hot dog is no better for you than a meat one, you are still getting all these different hidden ingredients in the packet,” he says.
“Whenever you are buying something in a packet it has usually gone through a heavy manufacturing process you will see a long list of ingredients on the food packet, some of them contain 20 to 50 ingredients.”
And even the climate-friendly credentials of meat alternatives, a big selling point with Millennial consumers, are under a cloud. Traditional meat production has a big carbon footprint. Almost 77 per cent of the land devoted to agriculture is used for livestock production. However, fake meat exacts a hefty toll on the environment as well.
According to Dr Marco Springmann, senior researcher with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food in the UK, plant-based meat companies often make claims about the environmental benefits of their products based on third party potential estimates of emissions.
The Oxford Martin Programme completed a multi-criteria assessment of meat alternatives and found most soy-based meat alternative burgers produce roughly half the emissions footprint of chicken, which is one of the lowest emitting animals, and ten times less than meat.
However, Springmann says the better alternative is vegetables with meatless meat having an emissions footprint that’s roughly five times higher compared to unprocessed vegetable products.
He is even more wary of lab-grown meat, which he says poses significant environmental problems as its carbon footprint is similar to efficiently produced beef.
“It doesn’t really help in reducing emissions and if it replaces chicken then what you are eating is higher in emissions,” he says. “It is also super unaffordable, it is just a food for the rich at the moment but people get overexcited about it and say it can solve all of our problems but at the moment that is just not the case.”
Despite the doubts, backers of meat alternatives remain undeterred and say the current means of food production are not sustainable as global demand for food grows over the next decade.
Phil Morle is a partner at venture capital fund Main Sequence Ventures which is an investor in meat alternative startups Clara Foods and V2Foods.
“Why would you turn a perfectly good soy bean into a beef analogue is a good question,” he says.
“But my answer to that is food is habitual and we have a series of recipes that we have learnt from our parents and these are the things we love to eat, like burgers and dumplings, and the idea of not eating those recipes and eating an eggplant instead is just not going to happen.”
He is optimistic meatless meat can help consumers reduce their meat consumption and the nutritional benefit of the products will improve as the sector matures.
But Mr Marks isn’t convinced, at least for the time being, and would rather fill the Guzman y Gomez menu with more vegetarian dishes.
“If you want to eat vegetables, eat vegetables, if you want to eat less meat, have less meat,” he says.
Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne